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Chicago Public Schools no longer nation’s third largest district

After 11 years of declining enrollment, Chicago Public Schools now serves 322,106 children, making it the nation’s fourth largest district after Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which serves 324,961 students.

Students walk down the halls at a school on Chicago’s West Side.

With 322,106 students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, Chicago is now the fourth largest district in the nation.

Stacey Rupolo for Chalkbeat

After 11 years of declining enrollment, Chicago Public Schools is no longer the nation’s third largest school district.

There are now 322,106 children attending the city’s public schools, roughly 9,000 fewer than last year, according to the official enrollment count released Wednesday during a school board meeting. That’s more than 80,000 fewer students than there were a decade ago, when city officials shuttered 50 schools citing low enrollment, and more than 115,000 fewer than were enrolled 20 years ago.  

The stunning contraction in size raises important questions about the future of the public school system and the city as a whole. 

“Our enrollment numbers reflect many changes including declining birth rates, but they also present us with an opportunity to review our practices and to ensure that we’re providing the best programming and services to our students,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said at the board meeting. 

Miami-Dade County Public Schools has overtaken CPS as the third largest school district in the nation. The Florida district enrolled 324,961 as of Sept. 1, a district spokesman confirmed. Clark County in Nevada remains the fifth largest school district with just over 305,000 enrolled. New York City Public Schools is the largest with more than 950,000 students enrolled last fall and Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest with more than 430,000 last year.

The decades-long decline in enrollment accelerated during the pandemic, with more than 33,000 students leaving the district since the fall of 2020. 

The pandemic-related closures and remote learning put unprecedented pressure on public schools across the country. But the reasons for Chicago’s declines are varied and in some cases, murky, according to a presentation given to school board members Wednesday. 

Most students that left Chicago schools – for reasons other than graduating – went to schools outside the city or transferred to private schools though both of those moves happened less this year than they did last year. The number of students switching to homeschooling went up during the pandemic, but those numbers came back down this year. 

District officials did see an uptick in the number of students considered dropouts and those who simply did not show up at school. 

As the district has contracted in size, the racial demographics haven’t shifted significantly. Chicago schools still serve mostly Latino and Black students, but the percentage of white and Asian American students have increased. However, all groups are seeing declines. 

District officials noted that some parts of the city saw steeper losses than others, including the predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village. 

Despite shrinking enrollment, the district’s budget has grown to $9.4 billion, up from around $5 billion a decade ago. A new state funding formula and a wave of pandemic recovery money have helped. CPS is in a position to spend more money per student at a time of incredible need. 

Still, schools were hit with budget cuts this spring. Union leaders, activists, and parents urged Chicago Public Schools to rethink its school-based funding model that they say ultimately results in declining enrollment and the closing of more schools.

But with a moratorium on school closures until 2025, a key question for the current administration is whether budgets will – and even can – continue to be tied so tightly to enrollment.

“It shouldn’t matter if we have 500 students or 300 students, those 300 students deserve quality,” said Carolina Gaete, executive director of Blocks Together, which is part of a coalition of community groups organizing parents around the issue. 

Gaete talked with parents outside Beidler Elementary on September 19, the 20th day of the academic year when the district takes its official enrollment count. It was a sunny September afternoon as students spilled out of the red brick, two-story building in Garfield Park. Beidler fought back against a proposed closure in 2011 and Gaete said closures do nothing for communities but create boarded-up vacant eyesores.

On the same day, Dixon Romeo talked to parents outside Manley Career Academy High School. The West Side high school has 70 students enrolled this fall, down from about 250 in 2015. 

As students trickled out of the building, Romeo approached a handful of parents waiting in their cars. He discussed Manley’s enrollment numbers, the district’s school-based budgeting system, and invited them to an upcoming virtual meeting on the district’s funding system.

United Working Families and Blocks Together are part of a larger coalition of community groups working to do away with the school-based budgeting model that the group says destabilizes communities. The budgeting system pits groups against one another, he told one parent.

“For any fight, you have to have an informed army,” Gaete said. “Part of that is really informing parents so they could really truly understand what this is and how it works and who benefits from it and who’s been negatively impacted.”

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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